Infants reach the awkward age

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The Independent Culture
THE first official day of spring was last Tuesday, but St Patrick's Day came a few days earlier - and that, for me, is always a signal that winter is over. In the Cotswolds, people declare that spring starts at the end of Cheltenham race week. Others call today - Mothering Sunday and the start of British Summer Time - the moment when winter ends. When we lived north of the Trent, we still reckoned St Patrick's Day was the first opportunity for sowing a row of radishes or carrots in unprotected ground. But I wonder what day Northern gardeners use to mark the return of the growing season.

Wherever they live, it's true of all gardeners that they cannot wait to get going again. Most of us have been ready for the off since the new year began. In January, with snowdrops and aconites, things start to look promising. February produces more flowers and buds of peonies, and now there are plenty of flowers and shoots and even leaves.

This year I avoided sowing too much too early in the greenhouse, because I know it is always the weaning period that is tricky. Early sowings have to make way for later ones, and if the frame is full and the cloches busy covering broad beans and lettuces, small plants have a miserable time in the cold. In the past I have watched lots of seedlings turn blue and keel over after an enthusiastic start. Christopher Lloyd, who knows everything there is to be known about raising plants, claims never to sow anything until April. But it is hard to wait that long. This year, strict timing is in force. Such hardy annuals as borage, Love-in-a-Mist and sweetpeas were allowed a fortnight indoors, then pricked out, granted another week under glass, and put into the frame for another week. By the first day of spring the little plants have to be tough enough to live outside in their pots, with only a thin fleece to cover them on cold nights. By the end of the month they will be ready to plant. Others now occupy the greenhouse bench and kitchen windowsill.

In four more weeks, all hardy plants will have to stand whatever the weather sends. But the tender ones, such as zinnias, nicotianas and cosmos will need to share the frame with courgettes and French beans until all danger of frost is past, which will be some time around the end of May.

Managing the greenhouse now is nerve-racking. If I go out for the day, leaving while frost is on the ground and returning at dusk, it is too cold to open up. But I know that by midday the sun could be scorching through the glass. Watering is also a test of horticultural nerve. Seedlings dry out quickly, and if I am at home for the day I go up to the greenhouse about every two hours to rearrange the draughts, or spray seedlings with a bottle of tap-water. Boxes of seedlings get moved on to the floor, away from the sun, and then back up again if it seems cold - in case they are in too much of a draught. They have to be turned regularly to face the sun and sprayed with Cheshunt compound for fear of damping off.

Like everything in infancy, plants are demanding. Constant attention, which often I cannot give them, is what they need. As I write, I am anxious about one seedling of a rare pea. Lathyrus nervosus, Lord Anson's blue pea, has large, lavender-scented flowers and bluey-green leaves. There were five seeds in the packet at a cost of £2, which makes this lone survivor pretty expensive.

The effort of raising it is going to be challenging. I am already worried about going away at Easter. However many instructions are left with family and friends, the leaving of seedlings is about as painful as abandoning two toddlers with measles.

A plant that has been enjoyed and admired this winter is the green-flowered currant Ribes laurifolium. The male form of the plant, R Vicaryl, is supposed to have larger flowers and the flowers on this shrub, which is about three years old, are large enough - but I do not know its gender. Recently, I saw the Ribes in a huge sprawling version in a small garden dedicated to the memory of Ernest Wilson, who collected it. "Chinese" Wilson was a plant hunter at the turn of the century, whose most famous introduction was the regale lily. After he had arranged for 7,000 bulbs to be shipped back to England, he fell into a ravine on the way back to base and broke his leg. Lonicera nitida, the hedging plant, was a Wilson introduction, as were Rosa moyesli, Clematis montana, Kolkwitzia and Viburnum carlesii. All of these, and many less well known plants, are in the Wilson Memorial Garden at Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, which is free and open every day.

Pulmonarias have a less exciting provenance, but at this time of year they are lovely. Their spotted leaves and two-tone flowers are familiar, but I am building up a collection of blue forms with almost no pink in their make-up. "Fruhlingshimmel" is early and pale blue. "Lewis Palmer" is large and gentian blue. "Glebe Blue" and "Mawson's Blue" are all worth finding from specialist nurseries. I like the small "Sissinghurst White" and the coral-red "Redstart", which has been out since Christmas. They are easy and tremendously rewarding. Their only fault seems to be that in very dry summers, their leaves get mildew. A dry summer is hard to imagine now, after the wettest of all winters. Perhaps these first days of spring will be what gardeners have been dreaming about. !